I have written about Dragon Age: Origins before here on this blog (mind you, it’s in Swedish), and back then I didn’t like it that much. I thought the story was way too generic, and in general, it just felt old. However, now that I’m older, and ten times more cynical when it comes to gaming (and everything else for that matter) the game is not that bad. Not bad at all actually! It feels like a genuine throwback to a time when games were made with love and ambition. I guess I just couldn’t see it then, but that is not hard now looking out over the micro-transaction hellscape that is the AAA gaming landscape. But sure, it’s not the most innovative title ever, the RP parts is pretty rudimentary when it comes to mechanics, and the world is fairly static, but man, if it isn’t a totally charming experience to go through it now. And to add – Dragon Age: Origins was made by BioWare back when they usually produced quality stuff.
The story is set in the fictional country of Ferelden.
Orcs – Darkspawn is attacking from underground, and are at risk of overwhelming the human, dwarf, and elven settlements in a so-called “blight”. It’s some kind of mega event that gets activated through an ancient evil dragon that unifies all the darkspawn under one banner, instead of them being scattered foul creatures that you occasionally find beneath the earth in small enclaves. The last time this happened was several hundred years ago, so you can say the civilized population of Ferelden is caught entirely unprepared. This prompts Duncan, a member of an old order made to fight darkspawn and the blight to recruit you for the order to help to defeat this ancient evil.
This recruitment takes many shapes because one of the unique things about this game is that each background has its little prologue. If you play as a dwarf (like I did), you start in Orzammar, the city of dwarves. This gets expanded into two different starting points, depending if your background is noble, or castless. It’s all very impressive and makes for great roleplaying beyond just stacking stats and equipment throughout the game. Starting as a human mage in the Circle of Magi differentiates a lot from say playing an outcast elf trapped in the alienage (slum) in Denerim (human capital city). It will form your character and roleplaying, especially if you make an effort to understand the lore and why things are as they are. Most of these backgrounds are interwoven into the main narrative in some way too, which makes for interesting takes on the story, depending on what you pick as your character.
Basically, your task is to unify humans, dwarves, and elves, so they can see through their differences and together fight this blight hell bent on destroying them all. I assume it could come off as a bit generic as far as fantasy goes, but at times that is good enough. For me, at least, it works. Dragon Age will take you all over Ferelden – through weird mystical forests, to dungeon adventuring that lasts for hours on end. There are also plenty of twists and turns in the story to keep it all very exciting. The story, and how it is handled, especially with the magnificent “choice and consequence” gets top marks from me.
Another thing that was a BioWare trademark back when this was made is excellent and engaging companions. This game is no different. There are a lot of them, all with their own agenda and set of skills. Some of them are altruistic, and some are more on the evil side, and they will all interject with their own personal opinions on how you handle the quests. This translates into how much they like or dislike you, which can have some serious consequences down the line in the story. I wouldn’t say it’s too hard to keep all of them happy, especially if you meta-play to keep everyone in line, since you can buy gifts that boost how much they like you. If you roleplay, though, you might turn to dislike for certain characters, all dependent on what kind of character you play, and this relationship dynamic can play out in really fun ways. I had one guy ditch me in a battle because I didn’t pay him enough attention. Actually, he didn’t only ditch me, he joined the enemy side, which forced me to fight him! And there are a lot of these situations throughout the game – some might leave, and some will be forced to kill if you anger them too much. All very cool stuff.
The gameplay is in real-time, much like Baldur’s Gate, but with fewer companions in the party – from 6 to 4. Which does limit creativity when it comes to party making, I must admit. You need a rogue to be able to open locked boxes and doors, and it makes me wish (not that I dislike the class) that talents like that would be open for all to learn. This thinking of mine is not restricted only to this game – I just think it would be a good thing to have as a separate skill, instead of needing a certain class for it. I reason that if you are an adventuring kind of guy, stuff like lock-picking simple locks would be a very useful skill to learn for anyone in this line of work. And it would remove the need to have some kind of thief in your party. Other games get around this issue by making locks “bashable”, with the risk of destroying the stuff inside or having your mage open it by some magical scroll. No such luck here, but it’s not something that breaks the game.
Overall, it has been streamlined a bit from the golden CRPG days, so it could be seen more as a narrative action adventure RPG than a true sandbox experience that allows for every kind of villainy. For example, you can’t kill whoever you want, but I think it’s just something you have to accept going in. It’s just a different take on the genre. Expecting Skyrim level of sandbox will just leave you disappointed in the end. Most people know how BioWare games work by now, but there will always be some that don’t, and well, a new generation of gamers that never played before. But as I said, it’s just different, and I think, together with the excellent story it makes for a fun play-through.
Other changes are to skills and magic. Instead of spells being something you have to memorize with limited uses per day, you can conjure them as long as you have mana with one restriction – cool-down effect. So spamming heal on your tank will not be possible. It’s a bit heretical perhaps for the purist, looking back that is, but playing it now, I think it’s a pretty nice system, at least for combat since there aren’t many uses for spells outside of it. This system constantly got me into tense situations with clutch healing being my go-to sweaty moment. For the most part, I found the combat enjoyable, managing threat, tanking, and nuking dudes from afar with powerful spells. I highly recommend playing on “hard” or above, since normal have friendly fire disabled for area of effect spells, which I think is a bit too much of a crutch, and it feels pretty unrealistic having friend or foe mechanics for fireballs. The normal setting is also way too easy in general, with enemies not providing any challenge. Hard felt just right, though – some encounters wiped the floor with me, especially bosses.
One of the great aspects of the game, beyond what I have already talked about, is how the game is designed. Instead of having a large empty open world that gets boring fast, we have tightly packed quest-hub areas that feel well-designed and very suitable for adventuring. You won’t get lost in dungeons for weeks like in the olden days, but they are still designed in a way that encourages exploration and feels epic in scale. It’s more “digestible”, you can say. Usually, it’s filled with small narrative moments too that add to the adventuring fantasy sense.
Loot and equipment, at least when it comes to the good stuff – the magical things that add to your character are pretty rare, which I love. One of my personal peeves with many modern RPGs is the abundance of loot. After a while, it starts to annoy me to no end having to equip and re-equip everyone after every encounter. I prefer magical loot being rare, and hard to come by, it also makes finding good stuff so much more impactful this way. Yet, stats don’t seem to matter that much, compared to say a Dungeons and Dragons game, it seems spells/skills and party composition matters more than just raw stats for the individuals. I’m not saying these things are less important in a DnD title, but some classes can solo whole dungeons, and I don’t see this working that well in Dragon Age. At least not to that extent. Considering there isn’t much critical avoidance, or blocking beyond running away, but alas, better equipment help regardless. Especially when it comes to the raw output of damage of the melee-based classes.
Visually, it’s naturally pretty dated, but I wouldn’t call it bad, just a bit old. Besides having some animation issues, and low textures, I think the game looks good, based on the nice gritty art style that remains consistent in the game throughout. Many areas still look great to this day and do inspire awe in me, particularly the massive indoor areas, like the Deep Roads and the home of dwarves. One last thing worth mentioning when it comes to the visuals is that the UI feels very PC-centric, which makes it a pleasure to navigate with a mouse and keyboard. Sound is also great with good sound effects and music by Inon Zur. But what truly stands out is the voice acting for all the characters, both major and minor ones. Some that I think stood out for me are Alistair, the Warden brother, Morrigan, the Witch from the Wilds, and Logain, the human commander.
Yes, this is a lot of praise for a game that I initially disliked, but playing it now, it just made me appreciate it so much more. We are not getting these kinds of titles anymore, and back when it was released, stuff like this was not some super rarity like it is now. I just found it incredibly fun, even if it could be considered a bit simple by old CRPG standards. If you, like me, have almost lost all faith in the AAA-gaming industry to actually produce something worth playing, you don’t get much choice but to go back in time. Beggars can’t be choosers! Anyway, I highly recommend Dragon Age: Origins, if you by some miracle have not already played it. It won’t let you down if you go into it with the right mindset and expectations.
Thanks for reading.
PS. It should be noted that I played the Ultimate Edition. This version includes all the released DLCs, and the expansion Awakening, which will be reviewed in a separate post.